Most people are itching to visit faraway relatives. For months now, many of us have been shut away in our houses trying to do the right thing, keeping our nuclear families safe from coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
Even though cases are still on the rise in most states, and things are looking grim in a few places, many people are feeling claustrophobic. We are squirming to get out and about. We want a change of scenery. We want to visit our parents on the other side of the country. Zoom meetings just aren’t cutting it anymore.
We’re considering if flying to visit family is worth the risk or not. Here are some things travelers should evaluate before jumping on the next plane out.
Before deciding to fly or not, most people will want to hear some expert opinions. If the experts in question are Dr. Anthony Fauci–the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health–or the CDC, it is clear that they advise against taking any trips.
Traveling increases your risk of catching COVID-19, as well as giving it to others. The CDC advises caution for all travelers and does not recommend one type of travel over others. The organization points out risks related to traveling by car, in a motor home, flying, and other public transport.
The CDC website goes on to detail the specific risks of flying. Before boarding a flight, passengers have to wait in long security lines and spend time in crowded airport terminals. Fliers have contact with other people. They also probably touch surfaces that others have touched while waiting for flights to board—catching the virus while on a plane is less likely because of how air flows in the plane. On the other hand, passengers cannot respect social distancing since others will likely sit within six feet. Flying means sharing space with strangers for several hours.
Dr. Fauci told the press that he doesn’t play to travel anytime soon. His exact words were, “I am in a risk category. I don’t like to admit it, but I’m 79 years old. I can’t think of a reason to go trans-Atlantic. Right now, I’m very sequestered. I’m on a coronavirus task force. I go to the White House almost every day…I don’t fancy seeing myself getting infected, which is a risk when you’re getting on a plane, particularly with the amount of infection that’s going on right now.”
What airlines are doing
A lot of people are following expert advice and staying home. According to Barron’s, airlines had a terrible quarter with stocks plunging. Not enough people are flying to keep airlines healthy and in the black. Delta’s revenue fell by 88%. The layoffs planned by American Airlines and United could put nearly 56,000 people out of work. Airlines are scrambling to attract more customers, and have responded by trying to make air travel seem safer for cabin crew and passengers.
American Airlines requires all passengers to wear face masks from the time that they enter their departure airport until they arrive at their destination airport. Fliers over the age of two without exception must wear masks when they are in areas of the airport where American Airlines operates.
American has introduced additional measures. One of them is installing plexiglass at check-in counters. They’ve also created a touchless check-in experience. Passengers don’t have to touch kiosk screens even if they’re checking baggage. On flights, attendants provide sanitizing wipes and gel for customers. Food and drink service has been reduced to minimize contact between the crew and customers. Cleaners sanitize surfaces like seatbelt buckles, armrests, and tray tables by hand. Airplane air systems employ HEPA filters. Finally, the company applies an electrostatic spray that kills bacteria and viruses every seven days. This spray continues to have an effect for 14 days.
Other airlines have also publicized their extensive disinfecting measures. While they announce their elaborate cleaning routines, some customers wonder whether airlines can achieve them. Companies are laying off workers–some of the cleaners. Will these reduced teams be able to complete the task in the way advertised? As airlines are forced to cut expenses, where will they find the funds for extra cleaning supplies?
One precaution that American Airlines decided to forgo is maintaining flight capacity low. In April, they instated a policy of keeping flights at 85% capacity, but now they have announced that they are dropping this capacity restraint. United Airlines has not limited the capacity of its flights. Although the airline’s policy doesn’t require a lower capacity, many of their planes travel with multiple open seats—as many as 40%-50%. Other airlines like Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, and Southwest Airlines have chosen not to fill adjacent seats and keep middle seats empty.
After flying on a full capacity plane, Senator Jeff Merkley wrote and proposed “The Middle Act of 2020,” which would ban airlines from filling middle seats. He includes an exception for families traveling together. He said, “Filling planes to capacity, forcing passengers to sit shoulder to shoulder for hours at a time, is incredibly irresponsible during a pandemic. I’ve seen with my own eyes that airlines are willing to put their profit margins ahead of the health of their customers. If taxpayers are going to bail out airlines because they provide an essential service, it is not too much to expect the airlines not to make the pandemic worse.” We’ll be waiting to see if this bill passes.
Even with the safety precautions taken by airlines, if people can avoid flying, they probably should. Travelers may be asymptomatic but spread the infection to nearby passengers. The risking of catching COVID-19 exists, and we still don’t know enough about the disease to put our health on the line just for a fun visit with family. We have yet to see if coronavirus causes chronic after-effects, but we do know that many people become gravely ill, and some die. The pandemic won’t last forever, and in most cases, we can put off our travel plans for a little longer.